“I see decisiveness as a very positive quality”

An interview with Röchling CEO Prof. Hanns-Peter Knaebel about false impressions of security, the risk of hesitation, and the perfect combination of courageous and cautious employees

Professor Knaebel, do you see yourself as a courageous person or are you more cautious?
I generally think of courage as an attribute that you accredit to other people, not to yourself. But since you ask, I wouldn’t say that I’m an anxious person, nor am I overly cautious. I weigh up opportunities and risks thoroughly against one another. I don’t fear failure, so I suppose that can be defined as “courage.”

Does that only apply to your personal life or to your working life too?
It is hard for me to imagine acting any differently in my working life than I do in private. I think that I am just as responsible and decisive in my profession as I am at home. For example, I don’t see how a person could be excessively cautious and reserved when it comes to their personal finances but then be bold and risk-oriented when it comes to company funds. If you have a functioning value compass in your private life, then it will most likely operate effectively in your professional life too.

How important are courage and a willingness to take risks for the development of a company?
To me, the word “courage” implies that you have weighed up the facts. So I see courage as a positive thing. However, a willingness to take risks suggests to me a daring attitude associated with a willingness to raise the stakes. And that is not necessarily an indicator of a balanced approach. In both our professional and private lives, we are always functioning within a certain level of uncertainty. The question is how much uncertainty is tolerable when it comes to making decisions. In my opinion, we try all too often to use a plethora of information to lull ourselves into a false sense of security, which does not and cannot really exist. I therefore call for a thorough but unshrinking analysis of information to make important company decisions quickly. I see decisiveness as a very important and positive quality. However, it should always be paired with critical ­self-reflection.

Does a bold and decisive management team generally have greater success than a more cautious and hesitant one?
The most important criterion for any company is that sound and pioneering decisions are made promptly based on the information available. If a person is willing to reflect on their decisions, it may be possible to correct or “fix” decisions that prove to be sub-optimal in retrospect. The worst thing for an organization, whether that is a company, a family, or a sports club, is when people are still hesitant after assessing risks and opportunities and fail to make a decision at all. This would make any organization come to a standstill and standstills are the start of the downfall of any successful enterprise.

How do you find the right balance between courage and a sense of responsibility?
Finding the balance between courage and a sense of responsibility isn’t something you can learn from a textbook, it takes constant practice. The former editor of Fortune Magazine Geoffrey Colvin once said: “Talent is overrated.” What he meant was that talent alone is not enough for certain tasks. You also need a disposition that has been refined and developed through continuous practice. A good gut instinct predominantly based on experience is essential when it comes to making balanced decisions. Experience isn’t necessarily measured in years here. When you are already taking responsibility and making lots of decisions and when you are also ready to reflect on the result of these decisions and rectify them if necessary, this is when you gain an unconscious sense of how to behave in certain situations or how to make decisions.

Is there a necessity for more courage now in this age of digital transformation? Or does a company actually always need to muster this level of courage in order to build a sustainable future?
Any form of transformation requires courage: courage from those who are initiating the change, and also courage from those who implement and undergo the change. Those who support the company also need courage, like the shareholders. If a company seems to be doing well and yet fundamental changes are being introduced, there is often a question of whether all shareholders will be able to understand and support this change. This is when you need to start clarifying the situation. If you do not explain the external circumstances and the changes that result from them and do not take people on this journey with you, the transition will not be successful. It’s not just a question of courage. You also need to be persuasive and present the right arguments. The digital transformation is a very good example here because many aspects of digitalization still seem like gimmicks or just “nice-to-have.” But being hesitant when it comes to these issues will be detrimental or even destructive to companies in the near future.

Does it also take courage to stick by traditions, values and tried-and-tested methods?
The philosopher Odo Marquard once said: “The future needs the past.” I find this sentence particularly incisive as it really hits the nail on the head with regard to the important relationship between origin and change. Those who try to change a company in a way that contradicts the very DNA of the organization or try to take away the company’s identity or even its soul, will fail. An awareness of the past, tradition, and values is extremely important when it comes to ensuring future success by making changes. Our value compass should be securely anchored in the organization because values such as trust, respect, appreciation, commitment, or creativity are not only values that were useful in the past, they will also be useful in the future.

In what areas could Röchling afford to be more daring in your opinion and why?
Röchling is a daring company! It has proven its openness towards transformation multiple times over the course of its history. It should be our aim to become more aware of changes, to proactively shape the future, and to not wait until the circumstances leave us with no other choice. This doesn’t mean that Röchling should just respond to things it encounters on its journey, quite the opposite. However, inertia is always at its greatest when people are in their comfort zone, in other words, when things are going well. And things are going well at Röchling. This is precisely when we need courage the most to continue to challenge ourselves and to review existing structures. This applies to every organization, Röchling included.

What attitude do you want the company to take?
Our company is characterized by passion and identification with or loyalty to Röchling. I want to make sure we keep hold of this in the future. But I would also like to see creativity, openness, and a climate in which everyone can speak about anything with anyone in the company. For me personally, no topics are off limits, but the dialog always needs to be respectful and considerate. When we start policing people’s thoughts, we are drastically restricting our opportunities for the future. This would be a shame because I would like to keep the Röchling Group open to lots of different courses of action, while always keeping in mind the DNA of the company.

Is it only employees who take risks who are courageous? Or are those who, for example, demonstrate their willingness to change through continuous learning also courageous?
Every employee demonstrates courage, but it will come out in different ways. A company that is as diverse as ours needs people who are always thinking outside the box and daring to try something new. At the same time, it needs employees who provide a safety net for their risk-oriented counterparts and are spirited enough to stay dedicated to day-to-day operations. This kind of support is essential to a company. Those who are new to the company and want to set new things in motion also demonstrate courage. Those who have been working with us for decades and have reinvented themselves many times within the company are equally brave. Therefore, courage shows itself in many different ways. However, one thing seems to be relatively clear: Employees who lack the willingness to continuously learn and develop probably aren’t bold enough to make themselves fit for the future. I haven’t experienced this at Röchling, but I think it is a problem in general.

Is a daring employee more valuable to a company than a more cautious one? Because that employee is driving the company forward?
I don’t see these qualities as in competition with one another. Cautious is just a word to describe someone who needs more information and time before they can make a decision. Decisions have to be made at some point. Cautious employees can be excellent sparring partners for the more daring employees in the company and challenge their standpoints. This is why we need both daring and cautious people at Röchling.

How does Röchling encourage its employees to be daring? How do you establish a corporate culture that promotes experimentation and creativity? And an environment in which people feel confident enough to question and refute things?
Trust is one of the central values of my management philosophy. Everyone is given my trust, they don’t have to earn it. A well-functioning culture of trust is the foundation for individual development and creativity. Those who feel trusted are free to experiment and discuss ideas discerningly. Of course, trust can be squandered, and the management team needs to respond to this. However, I don’t think that you should have to work tirelessly for a number of years to gain trust. This is a frustrating and laborious process that teaches people to fear failure instead of fostering courage and creativity. I can now look back on half a century of life experience and on several decades of professional experience. I’ve put my trust in everyone I have encountered along the way, and so far I have rarely been disappointed. We are all able to perform at our best when we trust each other.